Being Donald Trump’s pal pays—literally

May 2, 2017

Following Trump’s trail of ethical obliteration and moral devaluation is so time-consuming, I can’t imagine how the Office of Government Ethics is keeping up with all the potential conflicts of interest.


It’s important to press on, though, because this shit matters. The Trump administration is eroding the basic tenets of our democracy faster than you can say, “Emoluments Clause of the Constitution,” which states, “No Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”


Trump’s refusal to place his business holdings into blind trust—instead handing them over to his sons and pretending that severs his influence—is only the Dissembler in Chief’s most obvious emoluments violation.


Article II of the Constitution contains a second emoluments clause, specifically related to domestic money: “The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.”


Public pension funds in at least seven states—including the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, which is the largest public pension fund in the country—have invested millions in portfolios that include the Trump SoHo Hotel and Condominiums in Manhattan.


The SoHo is owned by CIM Group, which receives millions of dollars every quarter from state and municipal pension funds. In return, the CIM Group pays Trump International Hotels almost six percent of its annual revenue. In 2015-16, Trump International Hotels made $3.1 million from the SoHo, and Trump personally received $3.3 million.


This president is playing by his own rules (if you can call it “rules”) and his endgame seems to be getting all the money and power he can get, for as long as he can get it.


Fortunately, the American people have taken notice. In the last six months, the Office of Government Ethics received 39,105 queries and complaints about Trump. By comparison, Barack Obama received 733 during the same period from election through his first 100 days in office.


Unfortunately, the Office of Government Ethics has only advisory power. Real enforcement abilities reside in the House Oversight Committee, which is controlled by the GOP and chaired by Jason Chaffetz, a shill for The Donald.


A Republican representing Utah’s Third Congressional District (which covers Orem and Provo, just south of Salt Lake City), Chaffetz is an unlikely sycophant. Not only is he a Mormon—a demographic with whom Trump is decidedly unpopular—but Chaffetz was the first Republican to denounce Trump when Access Hollywood’s “pussy-grabber” tape emerged. Chaffetz waxed indignant—then endorsed Trump 19 days later, in what the Washington Post called a “record for flip-floppery.”


Now poised to be the nation’s watchdog against White House misbehavior, Chaffetz has shrugged off one conflict of interest after another, claiming Trump is already rich—and since when have rich guys ever tried to get richer? Besides, Chaffetz claims, voters knew Trump owned all these businesses when they elected him.


It must come as quite a shock to the average Trump supporter, as campaign promise after campaign promise goes the way of Trump’s marriages and casinos. His on-the-stump vow to “drain the swamp” translated into packing the White House with former lobbyists who, in many cases, are crafting policy for the same industries that previously employed them.


For example, let’s meet billionaire investor Steve Schwarzman, whose 70th birthday party last February featured trapeze artists, live camels, and a giant cake in the shape of a Chinese temple.


But his taste (if you can call it “taste”) for excess isn’t the most worrisome thing about Schwarzman. He is already using his influence with the president to benefit himself. Schwarzman is the CEO of Blackstone Group, a private equity firm with extensive investments in China.


Trump’s tough talk on China—including restrictions and tariffs on trade and labeling China a currency manipulator—stood to hurt Blackstone’s bottom line. After receiving advice from his friend Steve Schwarzman, Trump reversed his protectionist positions on China.


But Schwarzman is merely an informal presidential advisor, so how about Paul Manafort—professional lobbyist, consummate sleazeball, and Trump’s campaign manager after Corey Lewandowski was forced out for assaulting a reporter?


On April 14, the Connecticut Bar received an ethics complaint alleging that Manafort (who is a licensed attorney in Connecticut) “illegally conceal[ed] his efforts to advance the interests of foreign and autocratic governments” and “accept[ed] millions of dollars in payments that he knew or should have known were stolen.”


Manafort is alleged to have received at least $1.2 million from pro-Russian partisans in Ukraine. Manafort has denied the allegations, but his protestations are undercut by his plans to register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent, a legal requirement for lobbyists advancing foreign interests. Manafort’s pursuits included meeting with a Chinese tycoon to discuss partnering on Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan.


“Trump,” “Russia,” and “money” just keep coming up in the same sentence, making the president’s April 7 strike on Syria look all the more like a distraction. Dropping 59 Tomahawk missiles onto Al Shayrat Airfield (at $1.5 million a pop), followed by dropping the “Mother Of All Bombs” on Afghanistan a week later, apparently makes Trump look “presidential” in the eyes of the press—and that may be the scariest prospect of all.
 

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